And Now You Know: This Is What’s in Taco Bell’s Seasoned Ground Beef

The fast-food chain delves into the ‘weird names’ that round out the ingredients in its meat.
May 2, 2014·
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When is meat not meat? When you’re eating a seven-layer burrito from Taco Bell.

The chain was sued in 2011 for selling “seasoned ground beef” that was more seasoning—and fillers and binders—than actual meat. According to the Alabama-based law firm that brought the suit, the taco filling was just 35 percent animal product, which fails to meet USDA standards for labeling it as “beef.” Amanda Obney, the California resident behind the lawsuit, didn’t ask for a monetary reward—only that the chain inject a bit of truth into its advertising. Now, three years later, Taco Bell is doing just that, publishing on its website the full ingredient list for the ground beef mixture.

“There’s no mystery here,” a Taco Bell employee says in a video clip about the big recipe reveal: The filling is made from 88 percent “premium beef” and 12 percent “signature recipe.” After some water is added to the beef, it’s seasoned with salt, chile pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, sugar, garlic powder, and cocoa powder. So basically, mole.

But then comes the transparency bit, because the ingredient list is rounded out with “other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency, and quality of our seasoned beef.” And they aren’t exactly what you sprinkle into a skillet of ground chuck on taco night. There are oats, cellulose, and artificial flavor—“added to enhance tastes,” obviously—soy lecithin, torula yeast, sodium phosphates, lactic acid, trehalose, potassium chloride, maltodextrin, modified corn startch, citric acid, and caramel color.

What are all these things, you ask? They’re all geared to maintaining a consistent flavor, texture, and color. Trehalose, for example, is a “naturally occurring sugar” that’s added as a flavor enhancer. Soy lecithin is an emulsifier, which keeps the rendered fat from separating from the beef. Torula yeast is a non-meat addition that makes the beef taste meatier.

So at least you know what you’re getting when you cave to that Taco Bell craving. Here is the full list of the unfamiliar stuff, with comments from the chain.

Oats “The very small percentage of oats is used to help our seasoned beef stay moist.”

Cellulose “You’ll find it in everything from cheese and vitamins to bread and pasta.”

Artificial flavor “Added to enhance the taste.”

Soy lecithin “It helps [with moisture] to bind substances that would otherwise separate—like oil and water. It’s a common ingredient in many grocery staples, like chocolate bars and salad dressings.”

Torula yeast “This is a form of yeast that gives our seasoned beef a more savory taste.”

Sodium phosphates “Well, we use them to help make sure our seasoned beef is the right texture.”

Lactic acid “This safe acid occurs in almost all living things, and we use a very small amount to manage the acidity to get the right flavor.”

Trehalose “It’s a naturally occurring sugar that we use to improve the taste of our seasoned beef.”

Potassium chloride “Well, potassium chloride is a common salt substitute used in the food industry. We actually used it to help reduce the amount of salt used in our seasoned beef recipe, which is part of our ongoing effort to reduce sodium levels in our ingredients while still delivering the same great taste you expect from us.”

Maltodextrin “It sounds weird, but it’s actually a form of mildly sweet sugar we use to balance the flavor.”

Modified corn starch “We use a small amount as a thickener and to maintain moisture in our seasoned beef. It’s common in many foods, like yogurt.”

Citric acid “We use a small percentage in our overall recipe to add brighter flavor.”

Caramel color and cocoa powder “Caramel color is carmelized sugar, which is a commonly used food coloring [also found in cereals and pancake syrup]. Cocoa powder doesn’t add any flavor to our recipe, but it helps our seasoned beef maintain a rich color.”